Sunday, March 29, 2015

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and the Dissemination of Art Information

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and Crowdsourcing

I have recently had a conversation about “good bad art” and “bad good art,” by which I mean several different things in both categories.

“Good bad art” can be art that has everything wrong with it except faultless technique, or art that is unselfconsciously wrong in terms of genre or subject matter but that approaches that genre or subject matter in a way that redeems the artwork from the status of kitsch, or shades off into what I call defensible guilty pleasures—art that has such egregious problems on certain levels that its virtues do not really redeem it, but we love it anyway because it touches the parts of our personality that were formed prior to the age of four.

“Bad good art” is to be found in many galleries—art that meticulously rehearses well-worn strategies without contributing a scintilla of personal passion or imagination to the process, or art that imitates current passions and fashions in ways that work well enough, but really do no more than play with ideas and visual themes for which other artists metaphorically and occasionally literally are sweating blood. And there are many other kinds of bad good art, not based on passionless reproduction but nevertheless falling short in some way or another, difficult to define except on a case by case basis—one case in point being pompously meaningless or unnecessarily opaque conceptualism proclaiming its superiority. (What one person perceives as pomposity is another person’s deep seriousness, as any working critic learns very early when she or he praises something as being deeply serious.) Middlebrow art being inflated to conceptual greatness by insertion into a framework of ideas that can barely support it would be another commonplace type of bad good art—but anyone who claims that this is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes had better be prepared to back up their claim with acutely reasoned assessments.

The problem is, as I have implied above, is that people have perfectly valid reasons for liking every one of these things, even the ones they think they ought not to like. We are all shaped by our personal experience before the age of four, and we are all shaped by the social context in which we live and move and have our being. When we are overwhelmed with excitement by something that may on reflection turn out to be not all that great, what drives our excitement is usually a combination of personal factors.

Plenty of people dislike “good good art”—in fact, there are subgenres of it that do nothing for me, and I have to labor very hard to muster the enthusiasm to discuss just why this art is as good as it is on every level. Even more people (or at least it seems that way to the cognoscenti) like “bad bad art.”

Lowbrow is distinguished by the wish to find the good bad art out there in genres awash in bad bad-artmaking, and to show rather than say why it is good. Just as with every other genre traditional or transgressive, there is good lowbrow and bad lowbrow, and the genre itself has fallen out of fashion, I think, because its point has been made, just as nobody wanted to use the term postmodern any more once it was recognized that what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity was a different social and aesthetic environment from the sets of assumptions and economic conditions under which modernism flourished and in which what we called modernity took on its distinguishing shape.

But I digress.

The point I actually wanted to get to is that art criticism ought to be devoted to contextualizing and whatever degree of objective evaluating can be done—and I am not sure how we assign relative proportions of success to people whose art fails because they meant to do that, people whose art succeeds because (not “even though”) they have no idea why their artmaking is successful, and so on. There are semi-objective standards of comparison that seem to obtain across many cultures and subcultures, but they are modified in each cultural context, and comparison is a difficult business. There is even good kitsch and bad kitsch, although there the points of comparison are so challenging that it takes something like Tyler Stallings’ fabled exhibition tracing the birth of black velvet painting to make us contemplate why there ought to be, and is, an art history book about black velvet painting.

Art reviewing or art journalism is something else again. It sits somewhere between critical analysis and consumer guide, usually with the extreme discomfort that comes from being positioned between opposing categories.

Most artists and galleries would like to have their two-thousand-word analysis, preferably with the good stuff parked up front like in an old-style newspaper story, not like academic articles where the argument is made step by step and what journalists would call the lede is buried at the very end, where we discover at last the fundamental insight that all this analysis has been preparing us to realize. (This is why academic journals frequently insist on the inclusion of a hundred-word précis, introducing the conclusions to which the article eventually comes.)

The real artworld desire, though, is for a vehicle for marketing, whether it is called that or not. How many shows do we wish we had seen (whether we are art buyers or only art viewers), had we only known that they were there, and how to get to them in a time that suits our crowded schedules? But that we wish we had known existed, first and foremost.

Art reviewing sites are wedded to the older model of recommending the best of the best, and more realistically, whichever parts of the best of the best can be gotten to and be written about by a limited pool of art writers. Increasing the number of art writers decreases the number of brilliant shows that go unreviewed, but does nothing to solve the problem of the greater number of shows that go unmentioned.

Art reviewing sites also are confronted with the problem of discerning what on earth “the best of the best” really means, when “best” is defined so differently in different communities. We might well be left with the problem of wishing to write about the best good bad art, for example, in some month when it is more interesting than any of the bad good art that is out there. At best, we write occasionally about why good bad art deserves attention, and why bad good art is sometimes so unremittingly bad.

But then other communities, some of them quite well informed indeed, will insist that we are writing nonsense, although they are much more likely to say that we have our heads inserted into an anatomically impossible orifice.

Subcultures create critical discussions of their own, of which the dominant culture (if it deserves to be called a culture at all these days, rather than a consensus) is usually unaware. This permits feelings of superiority that are not just an unjustified hipper-than-thou, but it means that there are all sorts of shows and events that go unpublicized outside of social media. There are an equal number of traditional shows and events that are well publicized, but never reviewed, because they will generate a traditionally minded audience without the necessity of being written about.

SCAD had (it’s been years since I looked for them, so I don’t know if the experiment was abandoned) interview-based videos surveying art shows. The problem with interview-based videos in general (which have continued) is that they are also time-based, and few people have the time to sit and listen just to find out whether this is something in which they would be interested.

Facebook friends (I have no idea what is evolving on the other social media sites) seem to be posting individual images from current exhibitions, and short videos devoid of commentary. This makes it possible to tell at a glance whether this is something in which we personally would be interested, without producing the impression that we have now found out enough about it to know that we are happy that it exists but do not feel the need to see it in person. (This latter perception is usually wrong—non-digital work usually needs to be seen directly, not via a digital reproduction—but understandable. That is, however, another subject entirely.)

I now reach my long-deferred conclusion. Just in case you are skimming this, as well you should.

Oughtn’t we to have a single go-to site that incorporates this sort of information? Yes, yes, yes, I know it would be cluttered with personal puffery in no time if it were not hedged about with crowd-enforced rules—but unspoken rules of behavior have already evolved in the friends network to which I allude. People seldom post every single work in their exhibition; they pick and choose, and discreetly provide a URL for more information. Friends and other strangers (I quote Bob Dylan with that phrase) who are enthusiastic about a show are even more credible sources, but there are many occasions when we would not know about very good work if the artist were not engaging in a species of self-publicizing that is more than braggadocio.

Some friends (not on Facebook) plan their weekends by investigating the gallery websites and looking at works by the artists having openings (not necessarily the works to be exhibited in the upcoming show). These folks already self-edit because they know what they like, and they do not expect to find anything that interests them at certain galleries—but these ipso facto uninteresting exhibition venues are different galleries for different folks (sorry to echo the wording of the late Fritz Perls’ annoying maxim).

When I suggest that these folks might be missing something and ought to be given a more comprehensive way of rapidly perusing the available options, I am told that there are link-based arts calendars for that. But bare lists of names with clickable ways to get more information require more patience than most folks have. We have nothing in between listings and, if I may allude to a literary reference I have been trying in vain to track down, more than we wanted to know about penguins.

Right now, one-sentence verbal summations combined with something like Terry Kearns’ short exhibition videos seem like an excellent way of accessing basic information that can then be followed up on. (I assume the gallery URL could be embedded in the video caption.) Terry Kearns has said that although he is fulfilling a perceived need, he doesn’t want to take it up as a profession.

We have new ways of accessing information; we ought to figure out how to use them in ways that benefit communities with a wide variety of interests, technological savvy, and attention spans.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nick Madden's "I'll Die High" at Eyedrum

One of the greater artworld injustices is the lack of attention paid to Nick Madden's "I'll Die High" at Atlanta's Eyedrum. A major reason for this may be the show's bizarre violation of categories: cartoonish kinetic sculpture is not supposed to be an appropriate vehicle for thoughtful consideration of death, especially the death of one parent by cancer and the inner death of the other parent via dementia.

Waiting features a crank allowing viewers to make the figure's teeth chatter, a strange, excellent metaphor for the isolated nervousness of kin in hospital waiting rooms everywhere. The show continues in this vein, ending with a marquee-like sign reminding us that one day we will die.

The meaning of this exhibition isn't entirely clear without the information provided by Eyedrum staff, and that may be its chief problem. Viewers have had no trouble making up stories about things like this figure about which we are invited to pull gently on the cord until we see the light (which does eventually appear, for the patient viewer).

There is only one day remaining in the exhibition as I write this, but a closing reception is scheduled for Friday evening, March 27.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Note Regarding the Artist's Talks for Two Atlanta Exhibitions, March 21, 2015; a non-review even more non- than usual

Space, Time, and Gender: or, why you should go to Pete Schulte’s talk at Whitespace at 2 p.m. this coming Saturday, March 21, and then get over to Meredith Kooi and Nicole Akstein’s similarly structured talks at Kibbee Gallery at 3 p.m.

“Imbued with history and memory, the objects inhabiting our world breathe and vibrate. These objects and their surroundings are constantly on the precipice of becoming strange to us.” So writes Meredith Kooi in “Enstranged Spaces,” her half of “Close,” the two-person show at Atlanta’s Kibbee Gallery curated by Chanel Kim.

The work of defamiliarization (cf. Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt as both distinct from and related to Shklovsky’s defamiliarization or ostranenie) is different in each generation, and right now it seems as unexpectedly phenomenological as anything else, although Kooi claims to be incorporating history in a way that only existential phenomenology ever managed heretofore—Merleau-Ponty being a case in point, perhaps.

But biology has lately also come into play, thanks to the momentarily famous debate over “What color is this dress?” wherein the distortions imposed by poor lighting in a cellphone photo and online viewers’ wildly variant screen quality combined with randomly reproduced jpegs led to an argument that then led to the realization that we see differently not just because we have different histories but because we have different retinas. Take that, Louis Althusser.

I am engaging in wisecracking banter instead of getting down to cases because in this case, I am not quite sure what the case is. Still less am I sure in the case of Pete Schulte’s Whitespace and Whitespec exhibition “Light a Fire,” an incredibly site-specific evocation using things/artworks that are the opposite of site-specific; or rather, they transform the site in a specific way and would do so on whatever site they could be placed in this particular order.

Schulte’s objects and Kooi’s deploy geometry to opposite effects. The fact that I cannot say quite what those effects are is the reason I am writing this, the most non- of all the non-reviews I have thus far posted, for I cannot review work that I in no way claim to understand, only experience. The “wow” effect is positive in both cases, more so in Schulte’s because of the cumulative impact of the repetition of geometric forms in a minimal palette combined with a recording of evocative tonalities presented in the illusion of an antique playback medium (the vinyl record on a turntable has nothing to do with producing the soundtrack emanating from the machine’s embedded speakers). Something is going on that is reminiscent of what is going on in the best of Russian Constructivism, a body of work in which the archetypal qualities of the form and color subvert all of its would-be debunking rationalism. Schulte isn’t claiming to debunk anything, but what he actually is claiming to do is beyond me. The same goes for the specifics of Kooi’s installation, where the interplay of, for example, the transparent screen and video image on Kibbee Gallery’s famous stairs that lead nowhere produces a spectacle that is genuinely spectacular but elusive as to artist’s intent.

I think I am equally puzzled by the specifics of Nicole Akstein’s “Mother, Mae,” the other half of “Close.” Theoretically, I get that these photographs conceal or mystify as much as they reveal about Akstein’s actual mother. Her previous documentary work that documents events that are more staged performance than slice of life would lead me to conclude that. But I don’t know what the performances here are supposed to add up to, or even if they are supposed to add up.

Thus I can hope that it is physically possible to get from Schulte’s artist’s talk on Saturday March 21 at 2 p.m. to Kooi and Akstein’s talks at 3 p.m. the same day. Whitespace and Kibbee are not that far apart, but.

P.S. —I am confident that the artists have left sufficient clues for sufficiently committed viewers to puzzle out far more than I have been able to. I count myself as a casual viewer, always, except when a work of art so stops me in my tracks that I could commit the rest of my life to understanding it. Which works of art those are will differ for each human being on earth, and not only because of their biology and social history; the accidents of individual biography count for much, as well.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Few Hybrid Notes....

A Few Hybrid Notes on What Used to be Called Hybridity (What Do Folks Call It These Days? I Am So Out of the Academic Loop)

Jerry Cullum, asserting whatever Creative Commons rights seem relevant, as usual

I have just ordered a copy of the catalogue of the new exhibition from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, which I learned about from Hyperallergic’s essay by Allison Meier, “Afterlives of Mesopotamian Artifacts, from Flapper Fashion to de Kooning.”

As usual, the books are piling up faster than I can find time to look at them, since I still haven’t done more than page through the highlights of my copy of Jennifer Y. Chi’s earlier ISAW volume Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos. Dura-Europos has been an interest of mine ever since graduate school, when E. R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period made much (if not too much) of the wall murals in the Dura synagogue. This garrison town was a unique site of contestation between Roman, Parthian, and Persian empires, a crossroads where cultures blended and co-existed even as the political boundaries shifted; today its excavated streets are endangered by the shifting boundaries of the contemporary wars in Syria.

This is one strand of the stuff that interests me in this department—that which Homi Bhabha used to call hybridity. (Whatever happened to Homi Bhabha, anyway? Twenty years ago you couldn’t open an art magazine without reading references to his books, usually citations of the same one or two paragraphs, as is the wont of the art world.)

Given half a chance, cultures seem to borrow extravagantly from one another, even as they are endlessly being reined in by ideologues of a cultural purity that is frequently largely mythic; whether the culture doing the borrowing is economically and politically dominant or subordinated (God help us, not the military-colonial metaphor “subaltern”!) doesn’t seem to matter as far as the simple dynamics of hybridization are concerned. It matters a great deal as far as the self-perception of the hybridizer is concerned, but that’s another story.

The story told in From Ancient to Modern is a specific case study of hybridity, the typically whacked-out response of European and American popular culture to objects excavated in Mesopotamia. The exhibition also traces the influence of the Mesopotamian discoveries on modernist and contemporary art, a line of influence that is usually subsumed under other art historical rubrics—so we have something new to discuss in that regard. However, that line of influence needs to be set in context.

The enthusiasm for newly discovered Sumerian artifacts followed upon the King-Tut-inspired manifestation of Egyptomania, a much older cultural phenomenon in America and Europe that is interestingly traced in various books with that word in their titles, including Scott Trafton’s Egypt Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania. Trafton’s book follows only one thread of global Egyptomania, the uses of Egypt in the ethnic dynamics of nineteenth-century American society; some of the other Egyptomania books track the phenomenon’s influences on the birth of eighteenth-century Freemasonry in Europe (and what happened to it later in the United States), the many styles of fashion and design that borrowed from Egyptian antiquity, and too many other traces of the ancient in the modern to summarize comfortably.

Egyptomania long predates Napoleon’s expedition that gave Europe the Rosetta Stone and a generation of Egypt-themed mantelpieces and dinnerware; the Renaissance, for example, made much of it thanks to the prestige of the Hermetic documents and the supposed wisdom encoded in hieroglyphics. But archaeology changed the terms of discussion, and it did it again and again. One could argue that the re-erection in the Vatican of the Egyptian obelisk that once adorned Nero’s Circus is a terminus a quo for mythic dreams based on material culture, but to confirm that would require better knowledge than I have of the history of the obelisk that Theodosius erected in Constantinople. The extraction of mostly imaginary mysteries from exotic objects long predates the different discovery of the phenomenon in the Gothicism of eighteenth-century England, although the cultural penumbra associated with it were more often a matter of sensing the presence of deep symbolism rather than experiencing the pleasurable shudder associated with it in the wake of the Age of Reason.

I digress. Not really, however: the point is that objects brought by trade or by imperial conquest had consequences in the cultures into which the objects were imported, whether the objects were African sculptures in the flea markets of Paris, Japanese prints used as wrapping paper for the ceramics shipped to a Europe as mad for japonerie as an earlier Europe had been for chinoiserie, or furniture of the Pharaohs, golden artifacts of Troy and Mycenae, and statuary from ancient Sumer brought back by successive generations of archaeologists. All of this found its way into design, painting, and sculpture, but differently depending on the influence and whether the artist was Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, or Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Henry Moore.

And that spins us back to hybridity, about which John Boardman’s two-decade-old The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity is still an excellently provocative starting point for reflection. Tracing the migration of motifs from locations as close to the Greco-Roman source as Ptolemaic Egypt to places as distant as the farthest Central Asian outposts of the Silk Road, Boardman’s survey demonstrates the wondrous destinies of objects when they are detached from their originating culture, or are sent on the road accompanying their culture, whether the road is traversed by merchants or by missionaries or by armies.

That in turn brings me back to Dura-Europos and to Mesopotamian artifacts, but also to the present-day destinies of cross-cultural hybridization. Is antiquity in its archaeological incarnations ceasing to be culturally influential? The flotsam and jetsam of Asian and African cultures that show up in tattoo art and graphic novels, and the frenetic exoticism found in various video games, either replicate fragments of still-living cultures or reproduce the flavor and texture of entire bygone societies; as far as I can see, they don’t borrow motifs from museums. In the cultures for which the artifacts in museums are part of their own direct heritage, there seems to be relatively little creative influence of such objects on contemporary culture; when they are noticed at all, they are used as emblems of national pride or rejected as symbols of an outworn or unacceptably decadent past.

It would require more online research than I have time or inclination to pursue to confirm this impression, but I am wondering what the impact of the digital revolution has been in this regard. I think there are cases in contemporary art around the entire planet in which the legacy of antiquity is incorporated alongside the lessons of biology and the influence of everything from...well, one might as well say everything, for I am thinking of artists from Alexander McQueen to Björk to Matthew Barney to Pipilotti Rist, and many, many others. The lines of influence are multiple and distorted, of course; the costume and set design departments of the Star Wars sequels and prequels are a case in point, since the artists in charge plundered the resources of half a dozen ancient cultures to come up with the styles of a galaxy long ago and far, far away—a tendency that has long been regnant in the movies, and in science fiction at least since Forbidden Planet purloined midcentury modernism and electronic music to evoke a world of the distant future.

It would be wonderful if I had time and mental energy and publication venue to produce a genuine piece of scholarship on this whole topic, but I don’t, so I’m just putting this out there in hopes that somebody will fill in the missing pieces. Anyone curious about the books I have cited off the top of my head—and way too many others, for typing in just one search term yielded six or eight seriously interesting titles of which I hadn’t been aware—can easily pull up the bibliographic information and ways to acquire the books in question.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stuck (Sort of) in the Middle with You and Almost Everyone Else: Thoughts About "Middle" at Gallery 72, Atlanta

The ordinary-seeming concept called “middle” is a major puzzle.

For one thing, no matter what the dictionary suggests, “middle” is often almost the opposite of “center.” The center is ordinarily a place of honor or at least of organization. Even in ordinary usage, one wouldn’t normally say that the sun is the middle of the solar system. In the history of religions, “Center” is a word to conjure with, even in Meister Eckhart’s (and/or others’) definition of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. “God is a Middle”? Not so much. Postmodern philosophy sought to decenter Eurocentrism; less disturbed by terms and operating assumptions that happened de facto to be in the middle of things.

The middle term of a syllogism gets a certain amount of can’t get from Point A to Point B without it. But in general, middle-ness is in-between-ness, a point midway on the way to somewhere else or from somewhere else. The middle is also, as is increasingly recognized, the midpoint in a gulf separating two established terms. There is a continuum, or a spectrum, but we don’t know that, not yet anyway: out there in the void that ought to be a bridge, comes the interstitial middle term.

So it makes sense, in an era celebrating neither-nor more than both-and, and the provisional more than the firmly established, that a show called “Middle” should have been mounted at Atlanta’s Gallery 72 courtesy of curator Candice Greathouse.

Unfortunately, as I just now implied, we are in a bit of a muddle over “middle.” I am not entirely sure that Greathouse’s show, which runs through February 15, has cleared up the issues of “inbetweenness and potentiality through material and process” that she says the show addresses.

That definition manages to narrow “middle” down a little. We are looking, we might think, at formalism, at the roots of provisional painting, perhaps. But we would be wrong in thinking that, or at least I think so.

For one thing, there is the almost grotesque marriage of Freud and Marx in the video gallery. Meta Gary’s Enterchange depicts the endless loop of earthmoving equipment in late capitalism’s ceaseless logic of demolition and development, as framed in the vaginal opening of a leftover piece of concrete, or more likely one that hasn’t been put in its place yet. Brittainy Lauback’s Hole keeps inserting digits or foamy materials into openings of one sort of another, never quite attaining a perfect match nor truly filling the unappeasable voidness. Patricia Villafane’s multiple-image video of Target and its target-shaped store logo (talk about a center versus a middle!) presents a different sort of unappeasable desire and irremediable deficiency, a process of exchange in which none of the parties can ever be completely satisfied even if the transaction is regarded as open and above reproach.

That leads us, logically I suppose, to Christina Price Washington’s Thoughts on the (excluded) Middle, in which a vague pictorial or non-pictorial image set well below eye level on a movable wall (we learn from her statement that this is a picture of a helium filled balloon) carries a great deal of conceptual and openly philosophical weight along with it. “The privileged position of the isolated photograph” is indeed “destabilized,” and we can’t help (or I can’t, anyway) but think of Max Nordau’s Luftmenschen, people left floating in air by the circumstances of modernity, people whom Rilke characterized in the Duineser Elegien as the “disinherited children to whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs”—humans perennially in between times and places. This isn’t, however, Price Washington’s major point, as she finds herself “exploring the photograph as the subject and the information in the making.”

This exploration places Price Washington’s work firmly in the middle between the Law of the Excluded Middle and the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle, the former being the assertion that a proposition is either true or not true, no other choices available, while the fallacy considers “only limited alternatives...while in fact there is at least one additional option.” (These definitions open to discussion, because Wikipedia.) One could argue productively, if hyperbolically, that in a world of spectra and continua the law of the excluded middle is always already the fallacy of the excluded middle.

That leaves us with Margaret Hiden’s and Trevor Reese’s mysteries, as well as a couple of other in-betweens courtesy of Lauback, who offers a photo of a set of parallel fluorescent tubes that once held a lighted sign but holds one no longer, and that presumably will hold one once again—another product of late capitalism which belongs no longer to what’s been, and not yet to what’s coming. Hiden’s digital recapitulations of damaged slide photographs exist in a space between past and present, if not future, but only if you know what you are looking at—although I suppose one could also make up stories about the obliteration of recorded memory and the role that lack and fragmentation plays in the interpretation of history. In that sense, they are interstitial, neither unambiguous visual documents nor outright fictions.

Trevor Reese’s sculptures, I suppose, exist on the trembling interface between settled history and the shorthand with which we capture or configure it, although his de-wheeled hand truck set in concrete in in storage seems to have made a fairly firm transition from practical instrument for moving things to symbolic monument to the moving of materials. His lava rocks interspersed among existing rocks in the outdoor decor feels more like an unnoticed supplement to an architectural element that could be supplemented indefinitely. (One could, for example, put one or more pieces of old-fashioned public ‘plop art’ on top of the rocks.) Reese’s statement to the effect that “My interest in vernacular architecture and folk psychology is influencing my current thought on literal relationships, the different types created by people and things. I find myself navigating an increasing index of interpersonal and ‘mechanical’ connections” is headed in an extremely productive and correct direction, even if I personally can’t quite get what he’s driving at in his concrete (as it were) metaphors.

That’s about as far as I can push this provisional midpoint. There is just under a week for those who happen to read this non-review right away to go confirm, disconfirm or, preferably, correct and expand upon my intuitions.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Analog Revival Considered as an Occasion for a Seriously Misweighted Consideration of Much, Much More Than That

This is structured after the precedent set by George Steiner in his years of writing book reviews for The New Yorker, wherein the reader would learn, five thousand words into an erudite disquisition on the urgent need to rethink the aesthetic and economic legacy of the Dutch Golden Age, that the review was based on a few paragraphs scattered throughout a book that was primarily about how to plant the right kinds of tulips in your garden. See the footnote herein regarding productive digressions, or analysis terminable and interminable, but mostly interminable.

Following the example set explicitly by Jeff Kripal, after I woke this morning feeling that the essay of yesterday could land me in too much controversy to be worth it, instead of deleting that essay, I wrote another one.

Analog Analogies: Or, Revivals in the Age of Digital Reproduction

There is a reason, other than the simple vagaries of students’ notes, why Wittgenstein’s lectures on art and religious belief are collected in the same thin book. Aesthetic experience and religious experience are both marginal cognitive situations, open to divergent interpretation, even though the subject of the one is typically quite different from the subject of the other. (We leave to one side, or bracket as Husserl would have said, whether what Wittgenstein had to say has any meaning or usefulness, which two things are not the same thing.)

I hope at some point to offer an analytical review of Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Comparing Religions, a textbook designed to offer students a useful set of cognitive tools with which to undertake a more comprehensive examination of religious phenomena and religious functions than is usually the case in present-day discussions.

It is indisputably the case that aesthetics and religion always arrive in social contexts, even if the contexts lead people to kill one another over the question of whether the context is part of the prerequisite package.

This was the case long before Bob Dylan’s use of electric instruments brought unfortunately termed cries of betrayal from the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival. It has only gotten worse since then, although the fortunate rise of systematic cynicism beginning with the appropriationist art of the 1980s has meant that the largely silent sneers of the terminally hip at the phenomenon of lack of cool has spread far beyond the coffeehouses of the 1950s to encompass a whole culture in which tolerance is largely a matter of studied indifference to foolish opinions about which we could scarcely care less.

So it is a matter of some fascination to note the re-emergence of formerly hip phenomena in new contexts, and sometimes for reasons very nearly opposite to the reasons they were considered hip the first or second time around. The same thing happens in the history of religions, of course, but we shall not here consider the repeated iterations of the religious experiences sprung from the Burned-Over District of western New York.

Rather, we shall consider Chris Fritton’s scheduled appearance on February 15, 3 - 5 p.m., at Atlanta Printmakers Studio. And we shall consider it because Fritton, former studio director of the WNY Book Arts Center, has undertaken a project titled “The Itinerant Printer” as homage to the revival of craft letterpress printing. Letterpress is back, after having been in full flower some forty years ago (partly because letterpress fonts and presses were being discarded by commercial printers, who saw that nobody cared about the physical texture of printed material in an age when even linotype was being replaced by pasted-up photomechanical printouts). But it is back not because of the easy availability of cheap remains of outdated technologies, but because, says Fritton, of the analog revival, of hands-on maker-machine interaction in the age of digital reproduction. (This is not quite the same as the handcraft revival, in which the machines are a few centuries older and in some cases several millennia older. The machines of what I think of as the analog revival—someone please correct my use of the terminology if I’m delimiting it wrongly*—range in age of invention from the Renaissance up to as little as a half century ago.)

Fritton intends to print postcards using the random cuts of images, idiosyncratic typefaces, and other bric-a-brac that clutter letterpress enterprises, thus “reviving a sense of adventure in printing, along with the analog sharing of information.”

It is somehow utterly appropriate that it is possible to track the details of this hundred-venue crosscountry trek at


*I websearched “the analog revival,” in quotation marks, to confirm my vague impression, and very quickly found myself at the threshold of a 2006 book titled Postphenomenology: A Critical Companion to Ihde, an anthology that revealed a philosophical discussion that had gone on for the better part of a decade and apparently is still be going on in a major way, based on Don Ihde’s Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context, which upon its 1995 publication was blurbed as “a fascinating investigation of the relationships between global culture and technology.” The essays by several authors in Postphenomenology, the critical companion (which is not to be confused with Postphenomenology, the Ihde essays), have to do with, among other things, crittercams (“Compounding Eyes in NatureCultures”), embodied health-care practice, “ontology engines,” and other mixtures of real-life tech and real-life metaphors about machines and the persons who inhabit the embodied minds that interact with them. (And I do mean “inhabit”; as Nobby Brown wrote half a century ago, person is persona. Fifty-page digression about everything from the history of religions to currently fashionable gender studies could follow, but will not.)

Although a glance at the “Don Ihde” entry in Wikipedia reveals a whole body of work of which I was unaware, it is so far distant from the original question of why letterpress printing is newly popular that I decided it was time to stop climbing Mount Analog and come back down to base camp.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An essay on aesthetics that may or may not clarify why I have written the kind of art criticism I have written for decades now

This essay comes out of left field, but it does not come out of a vacuum, which would be an environment not very hospitable to left field players. It comes in part out of many years of reviewing art that I felt should be defended passionately even though I often had no personal enthusiasm for it, and another trigger was probably James Elkins’ Facebook post about his upcoming lecture in a general series titled “Failure,” a post in which he says, “I’ll be emphasizing things that don’t work (perhaps never did),” in this case with regard to a still-popular aesthetic theory. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is one of the great untrue statements of all time, but it is untrue only because the words themselves don’t quite fit the phenomena they are meant to describe; their meanings are elastic, but they are not meaningless even if they are slippery enough to give rise to Shakespeare’s memorable aphorism. Linguistic philosophy is not much help here, and perhaps never was, so we might as well start out:

The Festival of Insignificance, or, Trying to Get At the Question of Good Bad Art, and a Good Many Other Elusive or Paradoxical Types of Art, Besides

At the moment when Captain Obvious finally grasps why he will sometimes cross the Atlantic to re-experience a completely unimportant painting or video but has long made it a point to avoid some of the world’s greatest works of art, word comes that an English translation will soon be published of Milan Kundera’s new novel titled The Festival of Insignificance.

That has nothing to do with what follows, except that the probably meandering meditation I am about to write has to do with grasping why insignificant things so often seem more worth celebrating than significant ones, even if we accept the greater significance of the things we find uninteresting.

You can argue, and most arguers do, that “there’s no accounting for taste.” This is equivalent to saying that taste is completely a matter of things that happened to us before we were two years old—if we are irresistibly attracted to or repelled by some currently fashionable sophisticated phenomenon (whether in art, fashion, cuisine, music, movies, whatever), it is a logical development of some pleasurable or traumatic simple experience in early childhood. And thus it is not worth analyzing how our later experiences turned this happy or unhappy moment into our present passionately or casually felt aesthetic position, unless it is somehow going to help us clear up our psychological messes.

Most people don’t think it’s equivalent to that; they just think that aesthetic preferences are too weirdly arbitrary to make sense of, even though they can be pushed in one direction or another if you try hard enough, just as most of us learned to like spinach or rutabagas after a childhood spent detesting them.

The “ingrained preferences” versus the “pushing in one direction” don’t seem to be sufficiently analyzed most of the time. And indeed, a good many preferences seem to be ascribable to quite elementary forces: no matter how we tart them up, our transient “likes” actually come about because everyone else is liking it, or the flavor appeals to the hard-wired inclination towards sweet or salty, or the event turns us on sexually for the ordinary evolutionary reasons that drive us towards reproducing our kind.

But there are so many preferences that are not so ascribable. And these too are ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, because everything human is ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, including our responses to gods and angels if such happen to exist. On that level, anything that happens is natural, but some things happen so infrequently, or lead to such dysfunctional or destructive consequences, that we cannot help but call them unnatural in one case or supernatural in another.

This is a very strange definitional detour to take en route to getting at the phenomenon of “art that’s so bad it’s good,” or of completely unimportant artworks we’ll cross oceans to see again, while we’ll make it a point to avoid the world’s greatest art if there is any way of doing so. This reaction varies according to transitory moods, of course (John Berryman’s line of acedia-laden verse about “literature bores me, especially great literature”) but there must be a combination of psychological and neurological underpinnings to this that are also based in the way the world itself works—the objective environmental structures that have resulted in our responses surviving instead of the responses mostly killed off in previous generations of our particular lineage, even though they survive robustly in other particular lineages wending their way through the world.

It would be good if we could get to the point of being able to argue out the dimensions and meaning of that general insight, if we can ever agree that it is an insight; we are always going to have to disagree about whether culture or nature plays the greater role in all this, because sometimes it is one, and sometimes it is the other, even in the same person at almost the same moment.

At a certain level of self-awareness, I can make a rational argument that an artwork has what they used to call “significant form”—that the component parts of the aesthetic machinery function together with enormous and consistent complexity—but that I hate everything about it. I can also confess that although some artworks have no redeeming aesthetic qualities, I love them anyway, because I’m just that kind of guy. (That’s the phenomenon of which we can say we probably don’t want to go there, to use the idiom we apply to “not wanting to delve too deeply into causation in this particular case.” See also: the general problem of “fast and slow thinking,” and why there are cases in which there is no point in trying to swap one for the other, although it is worth considering why there is no point in doing so.)

Hence it would be really interesting to approach the development or refinement of aesthetic taste in terms of expanding the range of consistent aesthetic operations to which we respond positively. (Historically it has been a matter of replacing one set of preferred operations with another, or narrowing the number of operations to which we respond, instead of learning new ways of evaluating the success of the operations. This is not a good thing, in my view. Neither is the unreflective assumption that there is no way to evaluate sets of operations and one set is as good as another. Indoctrination and indifferent relativism both suck.) There are an immense number of consistent operations, and it is what allows us to argue over whether a graffiti wall is a good one or a bad one at the same time that we argue over whether an example of Japanese calligraphy is successful or unsuccessful, or over why some kitsch is unendurably awful on all fronts while other kitsch has such intriguing underlying compositional elements that it is actually worth keeping around us in spite of being appallingly sentimental or exploitative of stereotypes. (In such cases we do have to keep our wits about us to avoid being pulled helplessly into the responses to which evolution predisposes us. Incidentally, it is interesting that in this year’s lingo we would probably just say “because evolution,” which is a locution that is used both for things that are too obvious to be worth spelling out and things that are too complicated to spell out without completely losing your train of thought.)

E. H. Gombrich floundered around on the edges of such questions, but that was an awfully long time ago, and the floundering was immense. The few books that have been written more recently on such problems of causation, or even of straightening out our systematically misleading terminology and categories for such problems, have been as unreadable, and mostly as wrongheaded, as this essay most likely is.

But hey, I had to write it anyway.

Counterforces and Other Little Jokes